He took out a student loan in ’77. Today, he’s barely cracked the principal.

The struggles of some borrowers to clear their debts expose flaws in the system

C.W. Hamilton, a 72-year-old Army veteran in Reno, took out a $5,200 student loan in 1977 and still owes almost that amount decades later. (Max Whittaker for The Washington Post)
13 min

When C.W. Hamilton took out his first student loan in 1977, the Education Department wasn’t even a federal agency. The $5,250 he borrowed to complete an associate’s degree at Cochise College in Arizona was supposed to be an investment in his future, not a lifelong burden. Yet after more than 40 years of payments and bouts of default, Hamilton still owes almost as much as he first borrowed.

“It’s like an anchor around my neck,” said Hamilton, a 72-year-old Army veteran in Reno, Nev. “I live on peanuts. ... I can never get from underneath this debt.”

There are nearly 47,000 people like Hamilton who have been in repayment on their federal student loans for at least 40 years, according to data obtained from the Education Department through a Freedom of Information Act request. About 82 percent of them are in default on their loans, meaning they haven’t made a voluntary payment in at least 270 days.

“This is sort of a monumental failure,” said Abby Shafroth, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. “There are so many relief programs in the student loan system to address some sort of financial distress. But it’s this real patchwork, and borrowers struggle to navigate it. The department itself and its servicers often can’t navigate it either.”

While these borrowers represent a sliver of the 43.5 million people with federal student debt, their existence is an indictment of policies meant to help people manage their loans. Years of administrative failures and poorly designed programs have denied many borrowers an off-ramp from a perpetual cycle of debt. Even as the Biden administration tries to remedy these problems — including fighting legal challenges to its plan to cancel up to $20,000 in debt for many the fixes could still leave vulnerable borrowers like Hamilton on the sidelines.

The road to repayment

To understand how tens of thousands of people could be in debt for decades, consider the options for repaying federal student loans. When borrowers leave school, they are automatically assigned to a standard 10-year repayment plan. Others extend the period by enrolling in graduated plans that increase payments over time or income-driven repayment plans that tie their monthly bill to earnings and family size.

People can also temporarily pause their payments through deferment or forbearance, which can lengthen the timeline. From the time student loan borrowers’ first loans enter repayment, the median length of time it takes to pay in full is 15½ years, according to the Education Department. How much you borrow, how much you earn and whether you get your degree can all play a role in how quickly you pay off the debt.

Those last two factors played a starring role in Hamilton’s struggle to repay his student loans. After a dispute with an instructor, he left Cochise before completing his aviation studies. That led to a series of low-wage jobs and relocations for work. School loans were low on the list of priorities for the father of five. Hamilton doesn’t recall receiving any notice to make payments for the first decade after leaving school, which he suspects is because he moved around so much.

“The job market was really tight at the time, so I was taking different jobs for a while and didn’t have a locked-down address,” Hamilton recalls. “We didn’t have cellphones at that time, so they couldn’t call and say, ‘Hey, you’re behind on your loans.’”

But the debt caught up with him soon after he began receiving Social Security disability benefits. Injuries from stints fighting wildfires and fixing airplanes left Hamilton unable to work, and his federal benefits became fair game for collection. Through the Treasury Offset Program, the federal government has been garnishing his disability benefits on and off since 2002.

Before the Education Department paused payments and collection in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, he’d involuntarily paid more than $13,000. Treasury last deducted $175.05 from his $1,165 monthly Social Security check to service fees and interest on his loans — leaving Hamilton still owing $4,963.

“It’s tough because they’re taking all of this money, for all of these years, and nothing is going to the principal,” Hamilton said. “I’m getting nowhere. I was climbing up, but my debt kept going up.”

He had tried to shake free from the offset. Given his disability, Hamilton applied for a discharge of his loans through a program for totally and permanently disabled borrowers but was denied. He opted for student loan rehabilitation, a one-time process that brings a borrower back into good standing after nine consecutive payments. But Hamilton fell back into default. He said he was then advised to consolidate, another way to exit default by taking out a new loan to repay the past-due debt, but felt uneasy about another loan.

A fresh start

An analysis of federal data from July 2003 to April 2016 found 70 percent of borrowers in default were able to bring their student loans back into good standing within 10 years, but the rest remained in default. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that up to a third of borrowers who exit through loan rehabilitation default again within two years. It’s a problem that reflects the limitations of the system, said Brian Denten, an officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on student borrower success.

“You only get one shot at each of these options,” Denten said. “After that, if you default again, you can either pay off your entire loan in full or essentially sit there and have your wages, Social Security or tax refund garnished until your obligation is resolved.”

The Biden administration is temporarily waiving the rules governing default, offering 7.5 million people like Hamilton a “fresh start” by placing their loans in good standing when the payment pause ends even if they’ve defaulted multiple times in the past.

The initiative will eliminate borrowers’ record of default before the repayment pause and reinstate their eligibility for federal Pell grants, work-study and additional student loans to help those who may have dropped out before completing their degrees. It will also spare people from the seizure of wages, tax refunds and Social Security benefits.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Resources for student loan borrowers
Your student loan servicer should be the first point of contact if you are struggling to repay your education loans. But some government and nonprofit organizations can also provide free assistance. They include:


End of carousel

Rich Williams, senior adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary at the department, said the Biden administration is working to understand the administrative, regulatory and statutory changes needed to realign the existing delinquency and default consequences.

“The principles that we are following as we’re exploring policies like the new income-based repayment plan ... [are] that borrowers shouldn’t be in repayment for more than 25 years,” Williams said. “We’re going through that exploration phase, and Fresh Start is the first step.”

The one-time initiative isn’t exactly seamless. Rather than being automatically enrolled, people in default must contact the department’s Default Resolution Group or their loan holders to take full advantage of the program. They will have one year from the end of the student loan payment pause set to expire later this year to make payment arrangements. Failure to act will throw borrowers back into default.

“A big part of it will be getting the word out,” Denten said. “We know from speaking with servicers and borrowers that it can be hard to establish a regular line of communication.”

Even if people take advantage of the program, they could end up defaulting again. Denten said connecting distressed borrowers to an income-driven repayment plan will be critical. Depending on their income, people enrolled in such plans can pay as little as $0 a month and it would count as credit toward loan cancellation. It is a lifeline, however, that doesn’t always reach the people most in need.

Promise and failure

With the advent of income-driven repayment nearly 30 years ago, borrowers could avoid being saddled with education loans in old age: If you keep up with payments, the federal government will forgive your remaining balance after 20 years for undergrad loans or after 25 years for graduate school debt. The plans also let people struggling with their debt avoid delinquency and default, as the less you earn, the less you pay each month.

But in the early days, the Education Department and its student loan servicers did little to publicize the plans.

Rosalie Lynch, 72, said she learned about them only in 2015 after doing her own research. By then, she had twice defaulted on the $25,000 in student loans she amassed in the early 1980s for a bachelor’s degree in social work from Bethel College and master’s degree in counseling from Kansas State University. Lynch had tried to stay ahead of her payments but stumbled in the wake of a “toxic” marriage, she said.

“He wouldn’t help me and expected me to take on all of the financial responsibilities,” said Lynch, who works as a mental health counselor in Idaho. “There were times I just couldn’t afford [my student loans]. They had to be a low priority. The kids needed food, they needed clothes. I don’t make that much money.”

On the advice of her loan servicer, Lynch said she often postponed her payments through forbearance. It paused the bill, but not the interest. Between the periods of forbearance and default, Lynch accumulated enough interest and fees to more than double her debt to $65,000. Because of her wages, Lynch qualified to make a $0 monthly payment under the IDR plan. Still, she worries she will die in debt. Federal student loans are discharged upon death.

Like Lynch, Patricia C. Vener-Saavedra, 70, spent years in forbearance before enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan a decade ago. Working as an adjunct instructor for years left her stretching to cover basic living expenses, which didn’t include student loans. Vener-Saavedra said she learned about income-driven repayment after her loans were transferred to a new servicer.

“I kept asking my different servicers if there was anything I can do besides forbearance. And all I heard was ‘No, no,’” Vener-Saavedra said. “Finally, it changed to someone who said, ‘Oh, yeah, you can get an income-based plan.’ And I’m like, ‘How long has this existed?’”

With a $0 monthly payment, the IDR plan provided a path to clearing the debt Vener-Saavedra acquired for a master’s degree in astrophysics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. But the $35,000 in student loans she graduated with in 1991 has since ballooned to $88,141.

“I’ll be 85 when the loans are forgiven,” Vener-Saavedra said. “If I knew about these income plans earlier, I might not be in this position.”

Shafroth at the National Consumer Law Center said that with the existence of income-driven plans, no one in the federal student loan system should be in repayment for more than 25 years. The Education Department has previously disclosed that 4.4 million borrowers have been repaying their debt for at least 20 years, with half of them in default.

Yet a 2022 Government Accountability Office report found that the department had erased the balances of only 132 people as of June 2021 under the IDR plans. It said the agency failed to ensure that payments were accurately tracked until a decade after the first income-driven plan was implemented. As a result, some people with older loans are at high risk of spending more time in repayment than necessary.

Researchers at the GAO said the department never provided borrowers regular updates on their progress toward debt cancellation or readily available information about forgiveness requirements. Without that guidance, researchers said, people who believed they were making progress may not have known that postponing payments doesn’t count.

The blistering report arrived a day after the Biden administration announced in April that it would temporarily allow any month in which borrowers made payments to retroactively count toward forgiveness, even if they were not enrolled in an income-driven plan. The one-time revision meant at least 40,000 people would now receive automatic loan cancellation.

“There are student debts that should have been canceled, but no one bothered to do that,” Williams of the Education Department said. “So we’re automatically correcting those errors and discharging those loans.”

Under the initiative, the department will also grant a one-time account adjustment to count the months borrowers postponed their payments through forbearance if they remained in that status for years. Still, other features of the IDR adjustment will shut out many distressed borrowers.

Months in which borrowers are delinquent or in default do not count toward the forgiveness threshold. What’s more, the department is only counting payments as far back as 1994. Both of those stipulations will probably leave Hamilton and Lynch out in the cold.

“There doesn’t seem to be a good reason for this,” Shaforth said of the exclusions.

In January, the advocacy group Student Borrower Protection Center sent a letter urging the Education Department to reconsider excluding time in default from the account adjustment, saying “failure to fully remedy these harms would be an unforced error.”

The Education Department declined to comment on the matter.

Advocates have long questioned the rationale behind the federal government’s relentless pursuit of student loan payments from distressed borrowers.

Unlike the Education Department, banks and lenders in the private market routinely write off the debt they can’t collect, and there is a statute of limitations on collection, Shaforth said. While the federal student loan program is not as flexible, she said, the department does have the power to settle, compromise and terminate the collection of debts. She said the agency could use other regulations that give the government an out when it can’t collect a debt within a reasonable time.

“I would think that 40 years should be a reasonable time,” Shaforth said.

Student loan forgiveness

The latest: At a hearing, conservative Supreme Court justices seemed highly skeptical of President Biden’s debt relief plan. To date, Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan is on ice after a Texas judge blocked the student debt relief plan.

Calculate your eligibility: We tackled everything you need to know about the debt relief plan. Use this calculator to see how much of your student loan debt can be forgiven. Here’s what to expect in the student loan forgiveness application.

The opponents: What is happening to student loan forgiveness? A federal appeals court temporarily halted the student debt relief program. Six Republican-led states are also suing to overturn President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. An Indiana lawsuit was the first significant legal action seeking to invalidate Biden’s policy.